Futrell Backing Full Funding for A Merit-Pay Plan

By Lynn Olson — February 08, 1989 9 min read

In a rare move, the president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union has publicly praised the work of a local affiliate to devise a performance-based pay plan for teachers.

But the suprise statement may mark a shift in the union’s attitude toward risk-taking local affiliates, rather than a change in its policy on merit pay.

In a speech before the Fairfax (Va.) Chamber of Commerce Jan. 27, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, said that if the local school board votes to fully fund the performance-based-pay plan next week, it will mark a “truly historic” date in education.

“To my knowledge,” she said, “Fairfax would then be well on the way to becoming the first and only county in the nation to institute a successful performance-based teacher-compensation plan.”

Fairfax County’s superintendent, Robert R. Spillane, last week characterized the speech as a “major shift” for the nea, which has previously refused, in Mr. Spillane’s words, to “in any way support, condone, or encourage” efforts to create merit pay for teachers.

“It certainly is a departure,” he said.

The union traditionally has resisted performance-based pay on the grounds that salaries should be raised for all teachers, not just a select few. In addition, it has questioned the fairness and accuracy of the evaluations associated with such plans.

But in an interview last week, Ms. Futrell made it clear that the union’s basic position on performance-based pay has not changed.

“We are not endorsing or advocating merit pay,” she said. “Our position is that we think it’s inappropriate.”

She also said a local newspaper headline, “nea Lauds Fairfax Merit Pay,” was “extremely misleading.”

The union president said she was “praising” Fairfax County for following the nea’s criteria for affiliates that wish to pursue merit-pay proposals, but that she was not endorsing the plan itself.

Those criteria include: an across-the-board pay raise for all teachers, the involvement of teachers in both the planning and implementation process, the use of objective criteria for teacher selection, equal benefits for all children, no quotas on the number of teachers who can qualify for bonuses, and full funding.

According to Walter J. Mika Jr., president of the Fairfax Education Association, the nea sent out an internal communication to its membership last week stressing that its overall policy remains unchanged.

Change in Priorities

But while the union’s stance on pay for performance remains the same, its attitude toward local affiliates that choose to engage in risky and innovative practices has shifted.

Several nea affiliates have undertaken sweeping reform endeavors in the past few years, including those in Fairfax County; Jefferson County, Ky.; and San Diego.

But the union typically has chosen to withhold public praise and publicity from such efforts, because of fears that it would appear to be sanctioning initiatives that run counter to official union policy.

In contrast, its smaller rival, the American Federation of Teachers, has won national acclaim by choosing to throw a spotlight on the innovative work of its affiliates, particularly those in Rochester, N.Y., and Dade County, Fla.

The Fairfax, Va., speech marks one of the first times that the nea’s leadership has voiced strong, public support for a local proposal that some of its members consider too risky.

In the future, Ms. Futrell said, “I think you will see us doing that more.”

The union will particularly try to “showcase” the work of its “learning laboratories,” she said. The new nea program, scheduled to begin this year, will assist local affiliates that choose to engage in broad plans to restructure their schools in collaboration with area school boards, businesses, and citizens.

‘Risk-Taking Strategies’

The tone of the Fairfax speech also captured the growing urgency of Ms. Futrell’s calls for reform over the past two years, and it appeared to move her much closer rhetorically to the activism of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“The time has come to clear away the mold and mildew that still cling to the educational status quo,” Ms. Futrell told the audience of businessmen and educators. “In place of stale orthodoxies, we need fresh, risk-taking strategies.”

“Business as usual cannot be our slogan,” she reiterated. “We need comprehensive, fundamental, systemic change.”

She also claimed that Fairfax County’s recent initiatives have placed it at the “forefront of the education-reform movement.”

‘A Clearer Message’

The Jan. 27 speech also made concrete a subtle shift in nea operating procedures that has been evolving over the past several years. Traditionally, the union has functioned in a fairly centralized manner, in which state and local affiliates are generally expected to follow nea policy if they want to receive support and assistance.

But under Ms. Futrell’s leadership, the national organization has begun to place a much higher premium on supporting and serving its affiliates, even when they choose to depart from traditional policies.

“Ms. Futrell and a lot of the leadership have bought into the ideathat the union’s job is not to dictate policies to districts and states, but to facilitate a process in which they solve their own problems,” said Doug Tuthill, an nea member in Pinellas County, Fla. “What works and what doesn’t work is seen as a contextual issue.”

According to Mr. Mika, “There’s never been a question in my mind that the nea would support a local no matter how risky the position it took, as long as there was the open involvement of teachers.”

“If the teachers wanted to take a chance,” he said, “I don’t think I have ever heard the nea say they wouldn’t support them.”

But Ms. Futrell and others said last week that the national office has not always been as public or as clear about the availability of support and technical assistance as it might have been.

Now, Ms. Futrell said, the union is saying “more often and more vocally” to its members that if they decide to take risks after a careful, deliberative process, the union will be behind them.

“It’s a clearer message now,” agreed Barbara J. Yentzer, project director of the nea’s learning laboratories initiative and a special assistant for education and outreach. “I would say the speech reinforced a public support for locals that are doing things in a very thorough and prepared way.”

Superintendent Spillane was even more blunt in his assessment of what Ms. Futrell’s speech would mean for nea members.

“She makes it legitimate to be an nea member and still support moving forward and doing something different from the established, traditional policies of the nea,” he said.

The shift in the nea’s priorities is clearest in some of its recent initiatives, such as the Mastery in Learning and Learning Laboratories projects. In both instances, the national office has tried to decentralize decisionmaking and restore greater power to local schools and districts.

‘Upside Down, Inside Out’

Under the Mastery in Learning program, 26 schools around the country are trying to use research findings to improve teaching and learning and to “restructure.” Although the national office has provided the schools with technical assistance, it has not told them how they should proceed or what changes they should pursue.

Similarly, under the Learning Laboratories initiative, the union has pledged to support one district in every state that is willing to engage in broad improvement activities.

“These local communities will be free to turn their school systems upside down or inside out,” Ms. Futrell said in the Fairfax speech.

“Would they be free to experiment with performance-based pay plans for faculty?” she asked. “You bet! In fact, other districts around the nation might one day look to Fairfax County as a model.” She also encouraged that district to participate in the Learning Laboratories program.

Nea’s national office has committed $250,000 for the first year of the project. So far, 35 state affiliates have expressed some interest in the program by appointing state-level coordinators, Ms. Yentzer said. Although there is no quota on the number of districts that can be involved, she added, the union expects about 8 to 10 districts to begin work this spring or summer.

“In coming years,” Ms. Futrell said, “we expect to expand these efforts to every state.”

‘Getting Smart’

The same shift in attitudes can be seen in nea’s pursuit of state standards boards for teachers, which would have the authority to set licensing requirements within a state.

The union’s official policy, as reiterated in Ms. Futrell’s speech, is that such boards should be composed of a teacher majority, report directly to the state legislature, and retain complete authority to issue and revoke teachers’ licenses.

Nea affiliates in at least nine states--including Connecticut, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia--will be actively pursuing the creation of such boards this legislative session, said Sharon Robinson, director of nea’s division of instruction and professional development.

Lawmakers in Arkansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York may also consider the creation of such boards.

But Ms. Robinson noted that few state licensing boards would now meet the nea’s official policy. “We’re urging each state affiliate to work within the political context of their state environment,” she said, “and to make whatever improvements are possible.”

“Some states might end up trading off the teacher majority for autonomy,” she noted, “and that’s not a bad tradeoff, if you have to do that.”

“I would not call it a change in posiel10ltion,” she added. “I would call it ‘getting smart’ by virtue of having been out there in a more concerted way and trying to make this happen.”

Exactly what kind of licensing board an affiliate wishes to pursue is strictly up to each state, she said.

Reform Agenda ‘Entrenched’

One of the central questions now facing the nea is how deep the commitment to its reform agenda runs.

Ms. Futrell steps down in July after six years as the organization’s president. Since 1984, when the union published An Open Letter to America on Schools, Students, and Tomorrow, the nea has been refining and clarifying its reform agenda, she said.

“Perhaps people didn’t think we were moving rapidly enough or extensively enough,” she said last week, “but I don’t think that the organization has been dragging its feet.”

“I think that the organization tends to be very thorough and tries to be very careful about what it does--obviously, because if we’re not, millions of people could get hurt, including millions of children.”

Now, she claims, the union’s new agenda is “well entrenched within the organization and within our state and local affiliates--in some more so than others.”

But the real test, some say, is how far Ms. Futrell’s initiatives--and her vision--will outlive her tenure.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Futrell Backing Full Funding for A Merit-Pay Plan